She’s More Than Just a Sleeping Beauty

© Disney

Often referred to by just the moniker ‘Sleeping Beauty’, Aurora rarely receives the credit she deserves. I’m focusing solely on Disney’s visual masterwork, Sleeping Beauty, not the aggressively rapey origin story nor various re-imaginings. One could assume that Aurora lacks substance or is one-dimensional on first glance. Aurora tops most lists as Disney’s worst princess, going so far as to be called the “most worthless princess” because all she does is sleep. There is no need malign her name, or dismiss her.

Passing judgment on Aurora is a reflection of personal expectations rather than the recognition of her experience. The film revolves around her, but does not belong to her. She is the ‘Sleeping Beauty’, yet the story prioritizes the villain, her sidekick fairies and the prince, whose heroic deeds are rewarded in the end. The threat to Aurora’s life at birth essentially stripped her of autonomy. We learn about her circumstance, but not much specifically about her. What we can glean from her brief screen time is misunderstood.

The Mistress of Evil literally cursed her to die. This is beyond her control. At that particular moment in time, there was nothing that she could do to improve her circumstance. She shouldn’t have to apologize for her lack of defense as a newborn. Aurora is unaware of her pending doom. Only three fairies held power to alter the curse. Only one could utilize it. Keep in mind, Merryweather’s gift built in the true love’s kiss clause to undo the curse.

Aurora’s parents wanted to protect their child at all costs. This entails voluntarily exiling her into anonymity as an infant. Extreme? Yes. However, literal magic exists in this world and these extreme measures appear reasonable; a sort of Renaissance Witness Protection Program, secured by three anthropomorphized fairies.

A life of royal balls and feasts is suddenly reduced to backgammon with three eccentric older women in the woods. Perhaps not backgammon, but I’m sure they had some game to pass the time. It’s basically “The Golden Girls” set in a cottage, with Sophia swapped out for a leggy teen blonde.

When we next see Aurora, referred to as Briar Rose, she’s 16. She’s well-spoken, respectful, and appears rather well adjusted. This has now been sixteen years of isolation. Recently we’ve all seen what just one year of isolation can do to people. Now imagine your entire childhood and early teens with no contact to the world, beyond three eccentric older women in a modest cottage, and sprinkle in some woodland creatures. Somehow after all these years she’s still finding joy strollin’ in the woods with a basket.

It’s a life of captivity. Positive captivity, but captivity nonetheless. We’re quick to forgive it because it was deemed necessary and she was surrounded by love, so it couldn’t be that bad.

Wrong. She lived vacuum, with little to no agency, unaware of her privilege, primarily because she has no context of the world at large. This is no fault of her own. What specifically did the fairies teach Aurora about freedom and self-expression? What were the fairies sharing with her in general? How much freedom did she actually have? How could she ask questions without even knowing what to ask? Her life was carefully crafted and screened through the fairies. Aurora even acknowledged that her aunts treated her like a child. She was the victim of a horrific curse. Her support system assumed isolation and alienation was the way to overcome it. And people have the audacity to call her worthless.

Then one fateful day, she encounters another person for the first time, a handsome boy at that. Sexual exploration is a natural occurrence during one’s teen years. In this instance I doubt the fairies were teaching her Sex Ed with the twigs and berries she’s bringing home in her basket. Her only likely exposure to sex would be from observing her woodland friends. She was talking to these animals after all, a clear sign she’s lonely.

An encounter with a mysterious man is shown to be her first eye-opening experience; you might go as far as to call it an ‘awakening’. Once an idea in her dreams. now a tangible reality. It goes beyond a general crush on a boy. It’s more indicative of a daydream induced hormonal reaction; another common aspect of adolescence, heightened by living in a vacuum.

What does she do when she meets this boy? She is cautious at first. Then she realizes maybe she’s a bit hasty. Stranger danger! Impulsively, she invites him over to the cottage when her aunts will be home. Sensible and responsible. Additionally, Aurora’s woodland friends encouraged the pairing. Woodland creatures are intuitive in fairytales and sense danger. They would have pecked his eyes out or worse if he posed a threat. He passed the test and was deemed safe.

When Aurora arrives at home, she’s not secretive about the meeting. She looks forward to her aunts meeting him. We have a teenager who wants to share her romantic excitement with her guardians. She could have lied, run away or been reckless but she decides to include them. Aurora is a teenager who wants to involve her guardians in her love life. That’s some special magic right there.

Instead, her entire world erupts. “We’re sorry dear, you can’t talk to boys because your soon-to-be husband you’ve never met is waiting for you, which we thought was a good idea to arrange when you were a baby because he’s a prince! Now eat the cake we made for you and look at your new pretty dress fit for a princess! Oh, by the way, you are a princess! Surprise! If you don’t like the color, we could change it, or it can go back to looking like a duo-chromatic Jackson Pollock splatter painting.”

Aurora’s life once again uprooted from all that she knew — stripped of her agency. She’s either destined to not marry for love or lured into a coma. That’s traumatic and complicated. She doesn’t immediately cheer for joy or assume that her life will be suddenly improved by this royal reveal.

Part of the allure of fairytales is the grandiose desire to be and or become a princess or prince. This is somehow supposed to be aspirational. That is not the case for Aurora. Even her aunts were surprised she wasn’t thrilled by the news. Similar to Aurora, Mia Thermopolis, as teen, learned she was a princess in ‘The Princess Diaries’ and initially struggled to embrace it. But, she got a makeover montage and fancy events, albeit the stakes were lower. No looming death threats or betrothals. Imagine if Queen Clarisse Renaldi dropped that truth bomb on Mia right after her makeover. “By the way, your soon-to-be husband is waiting for you in the foyer.”

Aurora dreams of more but respects her aunt’s wishes and generally accepts that they have her best interest at hand. She doesn’t rebel, aside from crying on her pillow. Justifiable! It may be a cliche, but it’s real. (Countless times as a teen I threw myself on a bed and cried. I wish I did it as elegantly as Aurora however.)

Does Aurora’s willingness to return to the castle make her worthless or weak? No! She found out that her entire life was a lie and that she was offered to a man as an object. She’s most likely in shock. She knows no one beyond the fairies and the mystery man. What else was she supposed to do? How does she even begin to process this news? Run back to the woods and remain in solitude. She’s has no genuine context about her parents either. Her willingness to comply with the fairies could likely be due to curiosity about her heritage.

Before having a moment to process her fate, she’s hypnotized and lured with magic to her impending doom. Does her inability to combat the Mistress of Evil’s sorcery, while she’s grieving and lacking magical assistance, make her weak? No! The Prince can’t even defeat the Mistress of Evil without magical assistance.

In the end, the prince kisses Aurora and she wakes with a smile, as though lost in dream and unaware of the living nightmare that transpired. Yes, problematic. Not her fault. The fairies weren’t even powerful enough to end the curse without this questionable action.

These antiquated perceptions of Sleeping Beauty have more to do with Aurora’s situation than her character. We briefly experience her as a teenager. We know she wasn’t raised to be spoiled or entitled. She’s kind-hearted, respectful, and finds joy and beauty in nature and simple living. Those are admirable qualities unrelated to the magical gifts of beauty and song bestowed to her at birth.

Is she weak or worthless for marrying the prince in the end? Not necessarily.

In theory they marry for love and not specifically because of the arrangement. One could argue Aurora’s parents might have maintained traditional and misogynistic values that would damage her in other ways had she not been cursed and grew up in the castle betrothed to the prince. That’s not the story we were given. However, King Stefan does briefly question the validity of the arranged marriage. Even Prince Phillip pushes back and rejects it by declaring that he wants to marry for love, a subtle nod to his integrity. Who knows? Still, something still worth acknowledging.

Sure, the film maintains unreal expectations about love. And sure, it’s convenient her love interest is also her betrothed, but it was not forced. She made the most of a tragic story with an unconventional upbringing. There is a sense of relief and joy in the end. Aurora is sweet and civil. Do you expect her to throw a chair in anger at her parents for banishing her? I doubt she’d consider that to be an optimal first impression. She’s more likely happy to just be dancing with her mystery man, a natural response for a teenager. Both sides of the family are even pleased with the pairing. To be fair, that is the stuff of relationship goals. A family united. Evil vanquished. This warrants a celebration. Aurora and the prince dance as the ballroom fades to clouds.

These stories may all end the same, “And they lived happily ever after.” They don’t explicitly say they lived happily ever after together. Maybe marrying Prince Phillip, the first man she met after 16 years of isolation and no social context, does turn out to be a mistake. Can we blame her, though? (I’ve been impressed by men who did a lot less than slay a dragon for me. Given the chance, I probably would have married one of them if the opportunity arose. And yes, that would have been a mistake. Had I lived my entire childhood in isolation, who’s to say what questionable choices I might had made.)

Maybe she didn’t actually marry the prince. The day of her wedding she might have an epiphany and ‘wake up’ after, you know, meeting a few other men and realizing that marrying the first and only man she’s ever met isn’t the smartest idea. Will this lead her on a delayed rebellious phase like Rory Gilmore and make her decide she wants to irrationally quit Yale and work for the D.A.R? Or, in this case, want to leave the castle and return to a simple life in the glen? Although, Aurora’s rebellious phase would be fully justified compared to Rory Gilmore. But I digress.

Will Aurora even adjust to her birth name or want to keep Briar Rose? Will she experience PTSD as she begins to unpack the fact that her formative years were all a lie and she was cursed at birth to die? What type of leader will she become after her modest upbringing? We are only given this brief glimpse into her life. As Britney Spears might sing, she’s “not a girl, not yet a woman.”

Maybe Aurora will cut off her hair in an act of defiance when she learns the full extent of her past. Her strong cheek bones could pull off a pixie cut. Maybe she becomes a warrior to feel a sense of agency and empowerment after realizing she’s been powerless most of her life. Or maybe she misses living with the comfort and companionship of women and wants a simple life in the woods without the royal burden. Maybe that is her “happily ever after.”

To call Aurora worthless or the worst princess because she’s not the main player denies her voice and potential. We shouldn’t have to be shown every action to understand what emotional obstacles she must overcome as this story unfolds around her. Aurora harmed no one by her choices, did not directly create any chaos and dreamed of more with limited access to knowledge. This was at the expense of her adolescence. A sacrifice she didn’t even know was made for her until it was too late.

Whatever future awaits Aurora, she deserves respect and the ability to reclaim her life. That is not the foundation of a worthless individual, but of an individual ready to experience life fully awake. The story we saw was not her ending, but her beginning. Next time I’m strolling through the woods, I’ll bring a basket and song in Aurora’s honor.

Addendum: As with Snow White and Cinderella, the prince from Sleeping Beauty is a symbol. These princes represent access to a world beyond the protagonist’s limited scope. This leads to another topic. The prince’s paradox: kiss without consent or bring doom/death-almost like the rapey equivalent to the trolly problem? Two equally troubling options. Unfortunately, surface-level interpretations imply that a woman needs to be rescued by a man to find happiness. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll recognize that these three women endure severe trauma, and the prince is simply a way to bring about change. Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora kept hope alive against all odds. To say these women waited for a prince to save them discounts the abuse and the literal curses that rendered them unable.

Children’s book author. Hashtagging is surprisingly a lot of work. @themcgoonies www.gregmcgoon.com